I'm in Kabul, Afghanistan, for a 7-month work contract on media and gender. About a month ago, I made a two-week stop in Tehran, Iran, for paperwork purposes and to revisit the Afghan refugee youth I worked with for 9 months last year. I'd like to share part of the story of those youth here.
Some background: I am a half-Chinese, half-Iranian. Iranians often mistake me for Afghan physically. I went from an undergraduate degree in Mathematics (ah, the beauty and perfection of theory!) into the gory ambiguity of media anthropology as a graduate student. It was tough to adjust, but I think that I have become a more disciplined thinker as a result of my immersion in both worlds. One of the harshest periods of my adjustment came last year, when I conducted research on the effects of long term forced migration on Afghan refugee youth in Iran. My research went well, but life wasn't kind to my young colleagues. Life was quite harsh, actually.
The research I was doing was based in an informal (read: illegal) Afghan-run school in Iran. For 20 years, the Iranian government had hosted one of the largest refugee populations in the world, fluctuating between 1 to 3 million Afghans throughout the various wars in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion onwards. Pakistan hosted a similar number of Afghan refugees and received a substantial amount of international aid, but for political reasons Iran received much less external support for hosting Afghan refugees.
At various points in the last decade, Iran put pressure on its Afghan population to return to Afghanistan. Most Afghans successfully resisted the pressure to repatriate, however. Many of the Afghan youth I worked with had been born and brought up in Iran and saw only footage of ruins and devastation on the television about Afghanistan, so the thought of returning was scary. Their parents, while usually working in the low-income, informal economy as labourers or unskilled workers – difficult, low-paying jobs that few Iranians would accept – feared that they would remain jobless or homeless in Afghanistan, losing all the hard-earned savings they had accumulated over years of effort in Iran. So the Afghan community put up with government harassment and insults from Iranians in the street, and set up informal Afghan-funded and -run elementary and secondary schools that Afghan youth without proper refugee paperwork could attend.
I worked in one such Afghan school, and it was clearly a difficult environment to study in, being overcrowded, noisy, and dank. I became involved in setting up an extra-curricular youth club at the school, helping set up weekly meetings for discussion and problem-solving for the youth. One committee of youth became responsible for looking into creative ways of improving the school's conditions. They worked hard, setting up ceiling fans that made the heat more bearable, painting and repairing the rusty school benches, and providing ice-cold potable water to the school. The students gradually began feeling like they had more power over their environment, and their teachers noticed the change in their confidence level in classes.
One teacher asked me to help students at another Afghan school set up their own extra-curricular youth club. So I did: I went into one of the older classes and I talked about Terry Fox (a young Canadian man with cancer who ran on one leg across Canada to raise money for cancer research, dying about midway of his gruelling marathon-a-day journey across the country). His legacy continues to move Canadians to action, I said. And there are so many examples closer to home, I said. Think of the courageous Afghan women who set up a network of underground schools for children in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Or a young Afghan girl who learned four languages fluently in refugee camps in Pakistan so she could petition the international community for help for Afghan refugees. I told them that a Grade 7 Afghan student in Mashad, Iran, had told a researcher colleague of mine "thank you for asking about my problems, but the only one who could solve my problems is myself." Try it! I told the youth. One person can do so much – just think what all of you together can do!
It was incredible - the youth at that school set to work with a vengeance. With very limited adult supervision, they replaced broken panes of glass, cleaned out a well full of garbage, painted and cleaned out a storage room (which they later turned into a student-run library), and even repaired a broken, uneven step and floor with cement. I sent them books and posters and articles on Afghanistan, and they prepared a newsletter, which they called Beh Sooye Kamal (my last name means "complete" in Farsi, and their newsletter "Towards Completion" had a very complimentary double meaning). The degree of their response was really overwhelming.
But then, their school was bulldozed. Quite literally. The municipal government decided that they wanted to build a park where the Afghan-run school was housed, and about two months after their youth club activities began, sent bulldozers to tear down the walls around the school. The teachers had to evacuate their students in the middle of class.
I was in Afghanistan when this happened. When I returned to Iran and saw the gaily painted flower on the library wall half-demolished and the youth's hunched over despair, I couldn't look the youth in the eye. I became very conscious of my Iranian-ness, guilty by association with my idiot government.
I didn't (and don't) know if I had done the right thing in building up the hopes of the youth. In some ways, because of my meddling, their fall had hurt much worse. It had seemed so easy to set things in motion for them, but then I wasn't even really able to follow up. By the time the Iranian government began forcibly closing Afghan-run schools (the school in which I was officially working was shut down, too), I was burnt out and crabby and unable to respond. I think that's what bothers me the most. I found myself in the position of an adult who hadn't kept a promise to children, and it wasn't pleasant. I felt responsible for the youth yet also powerless to shield them from injustice and disappointment. It was sobering, this brief taste of the heavy burden their parents continually face.
But I guess I forget sometimes that life goes on, and my concern over my impact in other people's lives is just a manifestation of ego. Earlier in the summer, a pair of boys walked into the youth club office, overflowing with energy at having completed their photography assignment. The youth club was running a photography competition, with the subject matter "Afghans at work," and these two boys wanted to submit their entry. I downloaded the photos they had taken onto the computer, and saw that the photos showed two young men collecting garbage. In all the photos, the faces of the garbage collectors were not visible – either because their faces were turned away or something was in the way. I thought the photos were really good, and said so, then teasingly added, hey, I know that guy! Because it was clear that one of the faceless garbage workers was the youth submitting the photo.
The boy in question said: awww!! but took the teasing gracefully as the other boy laughed and punched his shoulder. I then asked the boys if they could explain why they had chosen to take the picture they had. They asked for some time to think about it, and I nodded. They came back later. I said, "well?" The boy who was not in the photo deferred to the one who was, and he looked me straight in the eye, a thin, dark-haired handsome boy with deep lines on his face that I associate with old age, and said, "we took this picture because we want people to know what Afghan youth have to do." There was an honesty and dignity in his straightforward gaze. "This is what I do when I'm not in school. I'm a garbage collector."
I smiled and thanked him sincerely for an excellent entry. And later as I thought about it, I knew what it was that had made this moment so special to me, making all the time, mistakes, and crises linked with the research project worthwhile: I cherish the memory of that other boy, the one who was not in the picture, smiling as his garbage collector friend spoke to me, quietly leaning an arm on his friend's shoulder and seeming as though his chest might burst with pride.
So in the end, all my feelings of guilt are wasted effort. The Afghan refugee youth I worked with in Iran are incredible: resilient and able to cope with a prospectless and threatening future much better than I think I ever could. They certainly seem to be able to handle the disappointments of reality much better than I do, if my rants about US foreign policy are anything to go by (long live idiot governments).
I think these lessons are all part of my maturing process, as I learn to move from the absolute purity of mathematics into the many shades of gray of media and society. I think I have to be more prepared to let go and let people hurt on their own. Life is ugly at times, and who am I to make it not so? Perhaps my challenge is to keep caring, to try and be present, and to listen when things go bad. I can question my involvements in other people's worlds, and I can try to do no harm, but I don't have the ability or even the right to try and make my impact on others uniformly good. If nothing else, I think I have discovered that it is important to trust in the indomitable nature of the human spirit that will survive and succeed despite everything. And in the end, I think I see now that it is really quite insulting to suggest that these proud, resourceful youth couldn't handle anything life chooses to throw at them – myself included.